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Fresno-Madera ranks poorly in air quality for U.S. metro areas

On this Earth Day, the Fresno-Madera area holds the doubtful distinction of being in the top three of national rankings for polluted air, whether smog, short-term soot or year-round soot. Only Bakersfield consistently rated worse.

Los Angeles bested Bakersfield and Fresno-Madera in ozone pollution (aka smog), and Visalia-Porterville-Hanford took the top spot in year-round particle pollution (aka soot).

In contrast, Salinas appears to have the state’s cleanest air with zero unhealthy smog days and one of the lowest levels of year-round soot. Nationwide, year-round soot levels are dropping.

Released this week, the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2017 report relies on air quality data collected in 2013 through 2015, the most recent years available. Those were in the middle of the state’s most recent severe drought, which officially ended April 7, and increased wildfires due to a related surge in tree deaths.

Cal Fire’s Tree Mortality Task Force report this month estimated 102 million trees died from 2010-2016 in California, with half of those in the national forests of the Sierra mountain range. Madera County, particularly its eastern half, remains one of several areas “most in need of assistance in addressing tree mortality issues,” the report said. Roughly 11 million trees died in Madera County from 2010-2016, more than any other California counties except Tulare (20.4 million) and Fresno (16.7 million).

Despite the drought’s impact on local air, the newest air quality ranking isn’t a major change for the region. Fresno-Madera ranked just slightly better in 2016 with fourth place in smog and in second and third place for soot (short-term and year-round respectively). Fresno-Madera held first place in both soot categories in 2014-2015 reports as well as fourth in smog.

Despite recent worsening smog, the area’s worst smog levels were highlighted in the 2002-2006 State of the Air reports, according to the lung association.

Since that time, grants to improve air quality have “increased tenfold,” said spokeswoman Heather Heinks, of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. “We’ve made significant progress working with both the state and the federal government to get funding for the San Joaquin Valley to invest in clean air technology.”

Back then, she said, the Valley received tens of millions of dollars. “Now we are well over $200 million dollars year. We are funneling as much money into the Valley as possible ... and that’s the progress you’re seeing in the last decade.”

The district works with the California Air Resources board and the federal Environmental Protection Agency to deal with air pollution. “So we also face challenges trying to reduce the pollution in our Valley while still being impacted by the rule-making that is not in our control,” Heinks said. Valley risks

The annual air report includes smog due to the serious health risk it can pose.

“Ozone pollution is especially harmful to children, seniors and those with asthma and other lung diseases. When they breathe ozone-polluted air, too often they end up in the doctor’s office, the hospital or the emergency room,” said Fresno doctor Alex Sherriffs, of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District board and the California Air Resources board.

The report also looks at average annual soot levels and short-term spikes in soot. California saw significant spikes for 2013-2015 in soot, which can come from diesel engine exhaust, coal and wood burning, and wildfires.

“These tiny particles, known as soot, can lodge deep in the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes. They can also cause lung cancer and early death,” Sherriffs said.

From 2013-2015, Fresno-Madera had a yearly weighted average of 47 unhealthy smog days and 25 unhealthy soot days, the report said. And the state’s geography contributes to that bad air, said meteorologist technician William Peterson, of National Weather Service Office in Hanford.

“The (Central) Valley is basically a big huge bathtub and it traps in L.A. air … The geographical feature of California is that the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys are surrounded on all sides by mountains and it just traps the bad air in here,” he explained.

The problem is not limited to the Valley, of course. Nearly four in 10 U.S. residents — 125 million — lived in counties with unhealthy levels of smog or soot in 2013-2015, the report said, which is an improvement over the 2016 report. But four out of the top 10 of the nation’s worst counties for air quality are in the Valley, and California cities in general dominate the rankings of the worst of the worst — with seven out of the nation’s top 10. More than 90 percent of Californians live in areas with unhealthy air for some part of the year.

However residents shouldn’t resign themselves to suffering from bad air. “There are tools available so they can protect their health,” said Heinks, who recommended “You can pull actual pollution data from monitors we maintain ... so you can make informed decisions” about the timing of one’s activities.

Heinks also suggested car pooling, bringing lunch instead of driving to restaurants everyday, and shopping for an electric vehicle.

“We have more work to do,” she said, “but we like to applaud the businesses and residents that we do regulate for taking steps to reduce their pollution footprint, from residents who choose to drive an electric vehicle to businesses that have invested in the latest technology so they don’t pollute like they did 30 years ago.”

For air quality data for each California county and metropolitan area, visit

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